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Home » News » General » Makgonatsotlhe blasts Btv over bias

Makgonatsotlhe blasts Btv over bias

Publishing Date : 04 September, 2017

Author : UTLWANANG GASENNELWE

Augustine Makgonatsotlhe, a relatively new appointee who was selected by President Lt. Gen. Dr. Seretse Khama Ian Khama to be an Ombudsman just a year ago is a man on a mission.


In his endeavour to make maximum impact in his new role, he released a hard-hitting report this week “authenticating” the state broadcaster Botswana television’s complaints of “biasness”. He implied that the station is favouring the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) at the expense of opposition parties in terms of coverage. The report was a response to a complaint lodged on 15 February 2016 by a member of the public, who also happens to be Vice President of the opposition Botswana National Front (BNF) Reverend Dr. Prince Dibeela.


In his report to the accusation directed to Btv, Mokgonatsotlhe also clearly stated in his findings that indeed Btv has given the ruling party an undue advantage by their unbalanced coverage of political party activities and the documents (Btv mandate and editorial guidelines) provided by the respondents (Btv management) clearly supports the claim. He observed that it resulted in injustice to other political parties and those with an interest in Botswana’s political sphere as they were denied the opportunity to compete fairly with the ruling party.


“It is my view therefore that Btv’s coverage of political party activities does not meet the requirements of balance, equity and inclusiveness as set out under mandate and guidelines. Such needs to be corrected in order for Btv to play its role properly and effectively,” the Ombudsman lashed out in the report. He revealed that Btv availed a document titled “BDP, BCP and UDC stories aired on Btv from June 2016 to May 17, 2017” which showed the unfairness in coverage of political parties in Botswana.
The document, he said, lists a total of 90 events, out of which only 1 titled “BDP VP-BCL” of 18 October 2016, does not immediately come out as a political party activity.


“Of the 89 (eighty nine), 73 (seventy three) were for the ruling party and only 16 (sixteen) for the combined opposition parties, BCP included. In terms of percentages this accounts for 82% coverage for the BDP against 18% for the combined opposition,” he said. The Ombudsman said Btv, also specifically relied on the document in denying the allegation that it rarely covered the events of opposition parties, arguing that they regularly cover those and that nothing can be further from the truth than the accusation.


“In response to the question on what influences their decision to cover political party events and whether the identity of the party has any role in influencing such, Btv stated that they aspire to cover all newsworthy events, which was however, not always possible due to resource constraints.” As such the state broadcaster officials said they have to prioritise, a process that is influenced by factors such as newsworthiness, magnitude of the event, availability of resources, and the need for “inclusion.”
The Btv management emphasised that the leadership and top government officials are thus given priority coverage in order to inform Batswana on service delivery of government and also to get their feedback.


“In my assessment, and unless some information has been left out, the picture painted by the document cited is not one of equity, balance and inclusiveness in the coverage of political party activities,” Makgonatsotlhe maintained in the scathing report.
He continued: “it cannot be equitable, in my view, that out of the 89 political party events aired on national broadcaster who seeks ‘to ensure that the public is fully informed of the policies and programmes of all political players’ and to provide ‘equity and balance’ in their coverage of such, that one party enjoys 82% coverage compared to 18% for the rest.”


According to Makgonatsotlhe, the issue of newsworthiness as referred to by Btv, is hard to believe because out of the 89 activities, only 16 from the combined opposition were found to be newsworthy, compared to 73 from the ruling party.
In the report, the Ombudsman said that in his view the allocation of airtime slots on Btv is an administrative function of the leadership of that entity, and that he found that they have, in the performance of such, unduly favoured the ruling party over the opposition, thus giving them undue advantage in obtaining political mileage.


He said that clearly caused an injustice to the opposition parties and gave the complainant (Dibeela), being a member of the public with an interest in influencing Botswana’s political landscape, the right to raise the complaint with the Ombudsman.
“Finally, the reference to the activities of the leadership and high ranking government officials appears to be inapplicable in this case as all the events listed were clearly political in nature and have nothing to do with government policy or service delivery. The events here cited were either celebratory of the achievements of the particular political party or were meant to inform the public of its activities, or to prepare it and its members for forthcoming bye elections. A failure to achieve balance and equity in the coverage of such activities therefore gave one party an undue advantage over the others.”   

He pointed out that Btv should therefore ensure a proper application of the principles stated in their mandate and editorial guidelines to ensure that their reporting of political party activities is balanced, inclusive and equitable, both in terms of the content and on the number of events covered.

What prompted the investigation of Btv?

Having received the complaint the ombudsman was relying on section 3 (1) to investigate the matter. The said section states “subject to the provisions of this section, the Ombudsman may investigate any action taken by or on behalf of a government department or other authority to which this Act applies, being action in the exercise of administrative function of that department or authority, in any case where: a) a complaint is made to the Ombudsman by a member of the public who claims to have sustained injustice in consequence of mal-administration in connection with the action so taken.” Also as per section 8(1) of the Ombudsman Act No. 5 of 1995, Makgonatsotlhe said he sent the report to a concerned department, Btv, Department of Broadcasting Services (DBS) which falls directly under the Office of the President for the “injustices to be corrected”.


Ombudsman rebukes Btv while praising BBC, SABC models

According to Makgonatsotlhe, when compared to other broadcasters like Britain’s British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and South Africa’s South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), BTV is left un-wanting and leaves a lot to be desired, particularly it’s set up. Btv, unlike BBC and the SABC, he said, is an entity under the Department of Broadcasting Services of the Government of Botswana.


“It was not established or created by any law and, only operates under the two documents as already provided (Btv mandate and editorial guidelines), whereas BBC and SABC have both been created by some instruments called Charters which are laid out in their founding legislations. The documents are its foundation and provide the necessary guidance on its operations.” What Btv can learn from BBC, Makgonatsotlhe said, is that there is a Charter which provides, amongst others, the appointment of Governors.


The Governor’s duties include, amongst others, setting clear objectives and priorities for the BBC and monitoring how they have been met; ensuring that the BBC is directed and managed in the public interest; is accountable to the license fee payers and parliament and ensuring that the BBC complies with the law and maintains high standards.     
The Ombudsman continued to highlight that the SABC on the other hand, is also created by a Charter as a public broadcaster and makes provision for the appointment of a Board of Directors. He also said the Charter is laid out in Chapter IV of the Broadcasting Act and requires the SABC to provide a wide range of programmes that advance the national and public interest.
He explained that in a democratic set up like Botswana, it is therefore, imperative that institutions such as a national broadcaster should be: established by law or some instrument that will clearly spell out their mandates and governance structures; transparent in the discharge of their mandates and functions; and accountable to the nation and parliament in particular.


What model is Btv and what prompted the report?

According to documents the station’s mandate is to promote and publicise government’s programmes, projects and national events for the benefit of the citizenry. In so doing, they are guided by internal and professional standards and guidelines. The document further states that Btv observes a professional media code of conduct and ethics. It says Btv espouses high journalism ideals, including accurate, balanced, fair and equitable reporting.


The editorial guidelines provide that both employees of Radio Botswana and Btv will “ensure that during political and election broadcasts the public is fully informed about the policies and programmes of all political players”. That notwithstanding, Dibeela alleged that, although it is a public broadcaster and is sustained through the taxes paid by all citizens, whose interest it is supposed to serve, Btv is instead used to serve the interests of the ruling BDP, in that: it rarely airs programs of opposition parties and regularly bombards the public with BDP propaganda.


To expand his allegations, Dibeela highlighted the broadcasters’ failure to air the unveiling of the tombstone of one of Botswana’s former opposition leaders, Dr. Kenneth Koma in November 2015, as well as the reception of Dr. Margaret Nasha, a former BDP activist, into opposition party ranks on 14 February 2016, although the station employees were present at both events.


Dibeela as such explained that Btv’s editorial policy totally excludes coverage of opposition party events, and allow for the over editing of shots to the point where the stories were rendered incomprehensible. He also complained to the ombudsman that the station allows for the late airing of stories after the events, when people would have psychologically moved on and were no longer expecting them. Such, according to the complainant (Dibeela) amounted to abuse of a public facility and was tantamount to mal-administration.

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